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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Belgium trip - Leuven (Part 1)

Belgium is a small, somewhat densely-populated nation in western Europe, home to roughly 10 million people, divided between the 5.5 million Flemish (Dutch) speakers in Flanders and the 3.5 million inhabitants of Wallonia (where French or Walloon is the primary language). Brussels, the capital of both the country and the European Union, has a population of about a million residing in the officially bilingual city (there's also a German-speaking region in the eastern part of the country). My wife, daughter and I are back in Shànghăi 上海 after having spent the past ten days on a Rest & Recovery visit to the land of beer, chocolate, mussels, waffles and fries, lots and lots of fries (served with almost every meal). The reasons for choosing Belgium as our R&R visit were simple: one of my best friends lives there, and the opportunity to get out of China for a few days, introduce Amber and Pamela to the charms of Europe (the first time for both to set foot on that continent) and catch up with Jeff and his charming wife Barbara was something that couldn't be passed up. So sit back with a Belgian brew (preferably a Trappist like Chimay but, if you must, a Hoegaarden will also suffice) and enjoy this and the next few blog posts on our trip to the linguistically-divided but always engaging Kingdom of Belgium.

Jeff and Barbara live in Leuven, a small city only a half-hour by train from Brussels (and which is even closer to Brussels Airport, a fact we three appreciated after the long flight from Shanghai) that also serves as home to the oldest university in Flanders. Our friends have an apartment close to both the train station and the city center, where they very graciously put us up for the duration of our visit. They also took the time to show us around, starting with Leuven the day after we arrived. Much of the city's center was destroyed in both World Wars, but several historic sites have survived, and many of the buildings that were rebuilt after the Second World War were done in the traditional style. Jeff and Barbara began by taking us to see the Stadhuis. Most historic Belgian towns have such halls, but Leuven's is particularly flamboyant, dating from the 15th century:

The statues on the exterior were added during the 19th century and represent noted personages such as the cartographer (and Flanders native) Gerardus Mercator (holding the globe):

Across the square from the old town hall sits St-Pieterskerk, a late Gothic-style cathedral. Work began on the church in 1425 and continued up until the 17th century. It was intended to have a 170 meter-high tower, but unstable subsoil meant the foundations were too weak, and it was never completed:

The interior of the church is exactly what you would expect from a medieval European cathedral, with its stone rood screen topped by a wooden Jesus...:

... as well as a wooden pulpit showing St. Norbert being thrown off his horse after a bolt of lightning struck at the animal's feet, after which he decided to devote the rest of his life to the Catholic church, founding a religious order called the Premonstratensian Canons:

The church's Treasury houses several marvelous works of art, including a copy of Rogier van der Weyden's triptych Descent from the Cross...:

...and two noted works by Dieric Bouts, the Last Supper, which shows Christ and his disciples in a Flemish dining room (if you look through the left-hand window in the center panel you can see Leuven's Stadhuis):

...and the unsettling Martyrdom of St Erasmus, showing in graphic detail how his entrails were removed from his body. This painting, along with several others in the Treasury depicting saints being tortured in creative ways, so traumatized my daughter that she doesn't want to visit any more churches and has probably been turned off by Christianity. Which wasn't my intention, but isn't necessarily a bad thing, either:

The sight of all that medieval gore worked up an appetite, so it was off to a nearby restaurant for lunch, and the national dish, steamed mussels. Jeff instructed us in the proper eating manner, which is to find an empty shell and use it like you would a pair of chopsticks to pry the meat from inside other shells:

The first of many beers on this trip. There are more than 760 different beers brewed in the country, and I regret that I didn't have the time to try them all:

Following lunch we took a stroll through the Oude Market, the center of Louven's nightlife area, filled with bars and cafes:

Approaching St-Pieterskerk from the Oude Market:

Delivering beer the traditional way:

Barbara having gone back home to have a rest, Jeff and I relaxed with glasses of Leffe Bruin at an outdoor cafe while Pamela and Amber went to check out a carnival taking place on the squares around the university library:

My daughter was certainly having a good time in Leuven:

Being a university town, Leuven has no shortage of places to eat and drink. For our first dinner in Belgium, Barbara and Jeff took us to a place called De Wiering, specializing in the kinds of dishes your Flemish grandmother used to make, such as the rabbit stew cooked in Lindemans Framboise raspberry beer that I had to eat (and drink):

One could get used to this Euro way of life:

An after-dinner stroll led back toward the Stadhuis...:

...and dessert outside on a comfortable Saturday evening in late September:

Did I already mention that I could get used to this way of life?

Jacques Brel - "Born in French-speaking Brussels but raised by Flemish-speaking parents, Brel never fully felt at home in either language group – a sentiment increasingly echoed by many modern Belgians."

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